May marks National Walking Month, so what better way to mark the occasion than exploring the rapid growth of walking football in Lincolnshire in recent years – especially with the formation and development of the Lincolnshire FA Walking Football League.
The project to develop walking football participation in Lincolnshire is overseen by Jake Park, Lincolnshire FA’s Football Development Manager, and Cissy Radford, Football Development Officer for the Women & Girls’ pathway. This work is heavily supported by a number of committed individuals from across the local walking football club network, who support internal club activity, but also volunteer to support county initiatives.
The development of walking football in Lincolnshire began with data analysis of the year-on-year figures around the game, which evidenced that participation within this format was not aligned to an aging population. Working with Active Lincolnshire, an insight report detailed that 43% of Lincolnshire’s population was aged 56 or over. Comparing this to less than 100 recorded players participating in walking football at that time, it showed as a County FA that we needed to work closer with affiliated clubs to better understand the local landscape, alongside the opportunities and any potential barriers.
This facilitated consultation and engagement with an enthusiastic and passionate walking football community to find a direction of travel that all parties felt were suitable.
The first step of this was setting up a local Walking Football Steering Group, made up of 10 club representatives that would meet quarterly. It provided those walking football clubs and the key individuals within those clubs a platform to share their voice and discuss key areas of the game.
Lincolnshire FA’s role on that steering group was to facilitate conversation and action what we could in order to build trust. The wider aims of the steering group were to improve the lines of communication between the County FA and our member clubs, and to enable teams, players, and volunteers to have more of an input into what walking football looks like within this county - allowing them to shape their own offers.
The next phase was to consult with the playing market, a key part of the development project. The committee devised a google form to collate insight in relation to key areas to shape the project, offering our valued walking football network the chance to identify their own priorities. The results were clear, the need was for a structured, competitive league structure in Lincolnshire.
So, what did this insight allow us to do in terms of intervention?
Walking Football Referee Workshops
Refereeing was an area which clubs highlighted as an area of potential contention in terms of needing to a local level of consistency, so working with the Lincolnshire FA Referee Development Manager, Michael Brader, and highly experienced and skilled local Walking Football Referee, Mick Hill, we arranged & delivered three Walking Football Referee workshops across Lincolnshire to build and upskill a pool of 45 individuals who could support our events. Mick has, and continues to be, a massive asset and source of support in regards to referee education and walking football in general.
We knew clubs might be a little apprehensive about the transition from club-based activity into a more structured playing environment, so it was important to phase that in, and use the festivals to focus on fun and enjoyment when playing against other teams. We also used these festivals as an opportunity for the match officials to get a bit of experience in a more casual football environment.
Upskilling volunteers was something we tried to focus on generally. We hosted training nights for club leads around online player registration. While this may have proved difficult for an older demographic, we tried to predict and remove as many barriers as possible to make sure the league was a success, and that early engagement was high. The committee gave up a countless number of hours every week to create a constitution and league rules. Without the initial committee, the project would simply not have been possible.
As it was a brand-new league, the league committee appreciated mistakes would be made but also recognised that not every mistake needs to be punished with a fine or a points deduction. It was a learning phase for everyone, so the committee tried to take a flexible approach.
Pilot Season [Venues, Format, Timings, Age Group, Fixture Regularity]
Every single aspect of the league, in terms of its offer, was based upon the results of the insight survey - from day of play to the age group, to the venues. The first four match days for the Over 60 division were held at different Football Foundation sites across the county because the insight survey told us that players were happy to travel and wanted new experiences. Everything was designed by the ‘players’, which brings us back to the whole purpose of the steering group which was to allow them an opportunity to influence and design their own offers.
Match Day Feedback
Monitoring and evaluation needs to be an ongoing process. We consulted with players after every event to understand how we could make things better ahead of the next one to ensure we were keeping players engaged and ultimately retained long-term. Being able to demonstrate to people that we listened and actioned feedback where we could create a level of trust. Easy to action tasks like having the net across the 3G or having hot drinks available helped build relationships and enhance the playing environment.
So, after all this work and intervention from Lincolnshire FA and committed volunteers – what’s been the effectiveness and result of this?
We had 14 teams in the pilot season, with an average player satisfaction rate of 90%.
The second season saw the league become England Football Accredited, and the introduction of a new ‘Over 50’ Division.
This saw an increase from 14 to 24 teams during this season.
The third season of the project saw a new ‘Over 70’ division introduced, as well as a new ‘Female Specific’ division.
There were 24 to 35 teams, with 492 registered players. The project was also a finalist in the County FA Recognition Awards.
The real impact of this project is measured through the opportunities that have been created for people who didn’t think they’d have these sorts of opportunities again. The increase from under 100 players to now just under 500 players has shown the effectiveness of the project, and the satisfaction rate of these players shows they are enjoying the new more structured playing environment.
Jake Park, Football Development Manager, said: “I believe the local walking football landscape is in a healthy position, though we recognise there’s areas of the game which are still developing both locally and nationally.
“The project detailed above has been incredibly successful and is largely down to the consultation we carried out with teams which was led by the league committee. The league simply would not have been possible without those involved in the early planning stages and those on the committee today, chaired by Gary Wildsmith. I cannot thank all of those individuals enough for the time, effort and commitment they have invested and continue to invest to enable this to happen.
“We’re now exploring how we can create both signposting and referral systems between local health organisations and local clubs as walking football has so many benefits attached to it.”
To find your local walking football club, please visit lincolnshirefa.com/players/ways-to-play/walking-football
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